Toni Erdmann: Imagine Groucho Marx as your father

A- Comedy/drama
Written and directed by Maren Ade

Try to imagine a Marx Brothers movie weaved into a reasonably realistic family comedy/drama that runs almost three hours. Even more amazingly, imagine that it works, and for the most part, works beautifully.

Toni Erdmann places an incorrigible prankster and practical joker into the world of giant corporations and big money. Like Groucho or Harpo, he enters a world filled with very serious people and rigid etiquette, and turns it on its head.

And yet, it’s also a believable story about a man trying to connect with the grown daughter who rejected him. It’s also about the daughter, who can’t quite see that the life she chose is making her miserable.

Winfried (Peter Simonischek) is one unique individual–and the sort you’d probably only take in small doses in real life. When we first meet him, he’s receiving a package. He manages to convince the delivery man that it’s a bomb he’s been eagerly expecting. But don’t worry; he’ll defuse it as soon as he gets it into the house.

His daughter Ines (Sandra Hüller) wants nothing to do with him. She’s working in Bucharest, Romania in a top, corporate consulting firm (this is a German movie, and Winfried lives in Germany). Her current assignment is to convince a client company to outsource jobs (in other words, fire a lot of people). The client doesn’t really need convincing; he just wants someone else to take the blame.

She also has to put up with considerable but subtle sexism. The client wants her to take his wife shopping, even though she really isn’t into that sort of thing.

With Winfried visiting her for a vacation, things can only get worse. His slovenly dress and inappropriate remarks embarrass her at every turn.

He finally agrees to go home, but then he resurfaces in a disguise that only she sees through. He’s now businessman Toni Erdmann, with bad teeth, long hair, and an ill-fitting suit.

You can probably guess how things are going to work out. But believe me; you’ll be in for some big surprises.

Don’t expect a marathon laughfest. For the most part, the jokes come one at a time and don’t build on each other. That’s appropriate for so serious a comedy.

But near the end, writer/director Maren Ade gives us one of the funniest extended comic scenes I’ve seen in years, with laughs building on laughs building on laughs. It also surpasses A Fish Named Wanda for cinema’s funniest nude scene. (The film also has a very strange sex scene–unrelated to this one.)

At 162 minutes, Toni Erdmann is awful long for this sort of movie. Trimming 20 minutes would have made it a better movie. But overall, it’s special, believable, and funny. You can’t ask for much more than that.